Hironobu Sakaguchi and his studio will create two role-playing video games, which will be published by Microsoft Game Studios and released to the Japanese market.

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Looking to gain a stronger foothold in Japan, Microsoft’s Xbox division said today it has hired Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the “Final Fantasy” franchise, to develop two games exclusively for the next-generation Xbox console.

Sakaguchi and his studio will create two role-playing video games, which will be published by Microsoft Game Studios and released to the Japanese market. Microsoft would not say what the games would be or when they will be released.

Analysts are expecting the company’s next-generation Xbox console to debut in the U.S. before the holiday season, but Microsoft has not confirmed a launch date.

The Xbox has not become the success in Japan that Microsoft had hoped for. The company has only sold 1.7 million Xbox consoles in Asia, compared with 13.2 million sold in North America and 5 million in Europe. The company has not given a breakdown of Japan-specific sales.

Peter Moore, corporate vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing at Microsoft, said the Xbox’s missteps in Japan were caused by several factors. The console itself seemed bulky in a country that adores consumer electronics and puts a premium on style. Perhaps even more significant, Microsoft never released a Japanese role-playing game – a staple for video game players in Japan.

“We haven’t done anything of any magnitude in the role-playing game area and that has been our Achilles heel,” Moore said. Microsoft produced six games directly in Japan, including the action war title “Magatama,” the fighting game “Phantom Dust” and a dinosaur-collecting game called “Dinosaur Hunting.”

Microsoft has said it plans to do a few things differently with its next-generation console. For one, the company plans to launch the console earlier than rival machines made by Sony PlayStation and Nintendo, or at least simultaneously. Sony’s PlayStation 2 debuted in 2000, the year before the Xbox, and was able to get a head start on sales.

Microsoft also plans to do a better job in Japan, the home of its two rivals, and key to that strategy is releasing a solid role-playing video game.

Enter Sakaguchi, a game creator known in Japan for his work on the “Final Fantasy” series. Sakaguchi began his career creating games for the Apple II computer and spent nearly two decades at Japanese game developer Square, which is now called Square Enix.

He created the first “Final Fantasy” game in the late 1980s, and since then 11 titles in the franchise have been released. Sakaguchi also directed the 2001 movie “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” which was a box-office bust.

Hiring Sakaguchi “is kind of our opening salvo for how serious we are about the Japanese market,” Moore said.

Japan has been the most difficult market for the Xbox to crack, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

Bringing Sakaguchi on board “will definitely help,” he said. “They have an opportunity to reset the market, and if Xbox 2 beats the next PlayStation and the next Nintendo box to market I think they have a very good chance of getting a head start.”

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com